A local meat vendor, delivering his wares to a small grocery nearby, was seen to point vehemently at the salad offerings — locally grown — that the store had on view. “No nutrition in that stuff,” he bellowed. “I just read that it’s nothing more than green water.”
I thought about that. Yes, the flavor and nutrients of modern food are often diluted by a high water content, from plumped-up chickens to pale, bland iceberg lettuce. But just as there are alternatives to the T-bone at a chain steakhouse, raised in an industrial feedlot, so are there alternatives to the blue-cheese-topped wedge sitting next to it.
Rather than pointing fingers, either in a store or in print, let’s consider the continuum that begins with the infamous iceberg and moves toward a salad of substance. First, I’d recommend reading Jo Robinson’s book “Eating on the Wild Side,” which gives the best advice you’re likely to find on choosing and handling vegetables and fruits for good health and good taste. She has us look for the intensity of deep green or red in the leafy fare we buy or grow, and for strong flavors, even when they verge on bitter or tart. We’re to choose loose-leaf types that let the sun into the head to do its good work.
From my experience, those would include robust lettuces such as Winter Density, or Rouge d’Hiver. As both names suggest, they’d be good crops to sow right now for winter eating. Though they’ll sail into fall with grace, they’ll go even longer in a cold frame or greenhouse. Sow them thickly, then cut and recut them at the hardier baby leaf size.
Don’t stop with lettuce. Grow baby spinach, young chard, peppery arugula, frilly golden endive, maroon-hued Bull’s Blood beet leaves, little green rosettes of mâche, and a salad bar’s worth of Asian greens like tatsoi, mizuna and red Japanese mustard. Kale can be grown as a small-leaved salad ingredient too. I even use the large leaves of blue-green Tuscan kale, cut into narrow ribbons and tossed into a mixed salad bowl. I do the same with red-streaked radicchio and red cabbage.
These are powerhouse plants that prefer to grow in cool weather, even if minimal protection must sometimes be applied. I like them best when they’re in a mixture — not the tired, chopped-up bagged mix, shipped from far away, but whatever’s homegrown or raised close by.
I doubt I could ever keep track of which ones have the most folate, calcium, antioxidants or vitamins, let alone what parts of my body each of these natural tonics will help to preserve.I used to take a multivitamin pill. I now assemble a multivitamin salad. Combining different plant families — the cabbagey brassicas, the spinach-beet-chard group, the lettuce-endive-chicory tribe — makes me feel like I’m covering the bases.
For warm-climate gardeners, winter greens might seem easier to grow than summer ones. But wait, the healthiest greens of all grow wild in warmer months, starting in spring with dandelions and nettles, then moving on to lamb’s-quarter, shepherd’s purse, lemony wild sorrel and plump purslane.
Bits of these superfoods, added to a salad, will fortify it even more, and make it more interesting. There are probably a few still haunting your garden. Gather them while you can.
Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Early fall is the optimum time to move, plant or divide plants, but a paucity of rain has left the soil hard and unworkable. Thoroughly soak targeted beds at least a day before working in them. Get the soil wet to a depth of four inches — measure by seeing how far you can push a screwdriver into the ground.
— Adrian Higgins